Just Asking: Using Questions to Support Student Writing, Revision, and Reflection

Matthew Luskey

Many writing prompts begin with a question or two, often framed with context from the course. Here are two examples, one from an Introduction to Ecology course, the other from a Studies in Short Fiction class: 

“In this class we have been studying how biodiversity – specifically the interactions between species – benefits and/or disrupts agricultural systems. Of the many examples of interspecific interactions (i.e., mutualism, competition, predation, herbivory, parasitism or any combination of these) we have considered, which one do you think is most important to global food security?”

“In our class discussions of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, we kept returning to the concept of community. In your view, what characterizes a sense of community in Lahiri’s stories set in India and her stories set in the U.S.? What helps to maintain a sense of community throughout these stories, and what disrupts it?”

Designing a writing assignment around an authentic question is an excellent and well-established practice. An authentic question is inquiry-oriented; it entails more than one legitimate response—more than one reason, explanation, or argument is possible— and it gives more agency to the student writer. If you would like assistance with developing prompting questions, please make use of our Writing Assignment Hotline (by emailing us at [email protected]) or schedule a consultation.

Question Cookies

But why stop asking questions once the student writer has begun the assignment? As research in learning sciences and writing studies has shown, many proficient writers often begin with one question and then refine that question over the course of drafting; that is, questions often beget more questions. Instructors and teaching assistants can support student inquiry by maintaining a questioning mode—what rhetoricians, such as James Crosswhite, might call an interlocutor role—throughout the arc of an entire writing assignment. A timely question or two on a draft, during an office hour, or via an email can help (re)engage and focus students with their writing. 

Here are three suggestions for extending questions beyond the initial prompt to support student writing and revision. 

Suggestion 1: Use a Conversational Response Strategy

A number of TWW posts suggest ways to respond effectively and efficiently to student writing. One strategy is to adopt a dialogical approach with the writer, one where the instructor or teaching assistant’s marginal and end comments make judicious use of questions. For example, in an Elementary Education class, a professor has written in the margin of the student’s paper, “Do you see a link here between the pedagogical strategies you’ve just described and a specific theory of intelligence? Can you help me make the connection?” Here, the instructor’s sequenced questions invite the student to make more explicit and coherent the relationship between ideas in one paragraph and the essay’s larger argument. If the student addresses these questions effectively in a subsequent draft, they will develop a stronger argument with a greater synthesis of their ideas. Most important, the student writer must decide how best to answer the questions, if at all; the instructor’s questions prompt the student writer, but the act of revision remains the student’s responsibility.

Suggestion 2: Design a Question-Based Protocol for Peer Response

The dialogical role the instructor or teaching assistant adopts with student writers can extend to peer response as well. Too often peer response protocols focus on issues of correction and editing, which can create challenges for peers on both sides of the paper. Rather than tasking students with correcting and editing each other’s papers, encourage them to ask questions they think will improve their peers’ papers. Here is a simple protocol that can be adapted to quite a few different writing assignments: “Either in the margins of your peer’s essay or at the end of it, ask five questions that would strengthen the essay if answered. These questions should ask for more clarity, information, analysis, synthesis, evidence, etc.” 

In the essay assignment from the Introduction to Ecology course above, the instructor uses peer response and has added this very helpful question for the peer respondents as well: “If your classmate only has time for one change, which change do you think would most significantly improve the clarity of their response?” A good question like this can help writers and peer responders to prioritize their ideas without doing the challenging work for them.

Suggestion 3: Ask Questions to Foster Reflection and Transfer of Learning

Good questions can launch students on a writing assignment and engage them through the drafting and revision stages. They can also prompt students to reflect on and potentially transfer their learning from one context to another. As James Lang argues, mindful learning occurs when students engage in self-explaining. At its core, self-explaining requires students to “not only articulate what they are doing but also why they are doing it” (139). During a paper conference, in a revision plan, or in a reflective cover memo that follows an assignment, consider prompting students with a few questions that ask them to explain their choices as writers. For example: Why have you waited to introduce your main argument until the third paragraph? What is your rationale for beginning your essay with an anecdote? What makes this example the most compelling one?

How about you?


It seems only fitting to end this post with a few more questions: Which questions have you received on your own writing from instructors, editors, and colleagues that have been especially generative for you? And which questions have not promoted learning, revision, or your own sense of agency as a writer? Please share your questions and observations in the comments section below.

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages on the Center for Writing website for teaching resources. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. This year, in addition to fall and spring events, we are pleased to feature a Teaching with Writing Winter Workshop on January 15, 2020. Faculty, graduate instructors and teaching assistants are encouraged to register for workshops and consultations focused on course and assignment planning, effective feedback strategies, and efficient and inclusive grading practices. Visit us online and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.